2006 Pitchfork Music Fest

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Even though they’re underground musical legends, the Silver Jews and Os Mutantes are not exactly household names. If they were touring on their own, these bands could fill a decent-sized nightclub in Chicago but they’d never draw anything close to 18,000 fans.

But package these cult favorites together with some 40 other critically praised bands, and what do you get? A park jam-packed with young people grooving to glorious but commercially obscure music. The Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, organized by the Chicago-based music Web site www.pitchforkmedia.com, presented a true alternative to mainstream music – it was even an alternative to the more commercial “alternative rock” that will be on display this coming weekend at Lollapalooza. Temperatures in the upper 90s turned the festival into a heat-survival ordeal, and at times, areas of the park were uncomfortably crowded. (Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber said the park’s official capacity was increased to 18,000 from the 15,000-person limit used for last year’s Intonation Music Festival.) Despite that, the mood in the park was festive, and the excitement of musical discovery was in the air.

On Saturday, Band of Horses – a band growing in popularity on the strength of its soaring debut album, “Everything All the Time” – sounded more assured and assertive than it did back in March at the South By Southwest Music Conference. The only thing the band needs now is another batch of excellent songs. The heat might have diminished the liveliness of some performers, including Art Brut, but these British punk-rockers were still highly entertaining and humorous. Lead singer Eddie Argos said he’d gotten his haircut at a nearby Polish barbershop, and it was “the most Britpop haircut I’ve ever had.” The Walkmen performed one of the strongest sets of the whole festival, using unusual arrangements – two pianos and lots of shaken percussion instruments – to transform their songs into powerful anthems. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s voice was hoarse and strained with emotion, and his shirt was dark with sweat by the end of the set.

Other acts Saturday included the Mountain Goats, whose precious lyrics didn’t come off any better in concert than they do on record; and another precious band, Destroyer, which elevated its songs somewhat in a rousing finale. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and the Futureheads both played enjoyable sets, though both of those bands need to find a way to bring more variety to their music. The headliner Saturday night was the Silver Jews, who were playing in Chicago for only the second time. Leader David Berman may have spent years without touring to support his records, but he sounded confident, and the songs received triumphant applause.

On Sunday, the smaller Biz 3 stage (located in a tent away from the main two stages) featured two members of Wilco demonstrating the range of their talents. Guitarist Nels Cline played jazz with Jeff Parker, and percussionist Glenn Kotche coaxed some strange and wonderful noises out of his drum kit. The “freak folk” scene was represented by Danielson, playing giddily weird sing-along numbers in odd, blue uniforms, and Devendra Banhardt, whose quivering voice seemed less annoying in concert than it does on album.

Liars played the most abrasive and loudest music of the fest, but some old-time punk rockers showed them the real way to make noise – Mission of Burma buzzed through a superb collection of songs both old and new. Another veteran band, Yo La Tengo, offered a preview of its new album, songs that were not quite as mellow as the tunes on its previous two records. The only flaw of the Yo La Tengo set was that it should have gone on for an additional hour.

Two newer bands, the National and Spoon, played solid sets that showed why they’ve grown in popularity in recent years. The National upped the intensity of its studio recordings, and Spoon boiled its tunes down to concise grooves. By the time Os Mutantes played the final set on Sunday night, it was likely that many of the people in the crowd had never heard a note by this reunited 1960s Brazilian psychedelic band. That didn’t stop the crowd from dancing and clapping to Os Mutantes’ trippy flower-power tunes, though.

The emcee for the Pitchfork Fest, Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten, enthusiastically expounded on the power of music. By the end of the festival, some of the audience members were asking to have their photos taken with Tuten. “That’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Tuten said.

See my photos from day one of the festival.
See my photos from day two of the festival.